Soft Skills

9 minute read

6 Tips to Give a Presentation That’s More Engaging Than a TED Talk

Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Presentations. Ugh, are your knees shaking and your palms sweating at the sight of that one intimidating word?

You aren’t alone. Many of us dread having to stand up and deliver a presentation. Beyond it being incredibly nerve-wracking (honestly, that whole “picture the audience in their underwear” trick only makes things worse), there’s another big thing you’re worried about: being plain ol’ boring.

We’ve all suffered through our fair share of presentations that are so dry, they make watching paint dry sound like an exciting break. In fact, an astounding 91 percent of professionals admit to daydreaming during presentations. Another 39 percent? They’ve confessed to actually falling asleep.

But, here’s another statistic for you: 70 percent of employed Americans say that presentations are a critical part of career success. So, if you’re going to have to give them anyway, you might as well make them good—and, ideally, avoid inspiring as many back row naps as possible.

So, how can you pull this off? How can you make sure your presentation is engaging enough to keep your audience captivated—or, at the very least, prevent them from nodding off?

Start by taking a few cues and tips from some of the most interesting and engaging presentations out there: TED talks.

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6 Presentation tips stolen from TED talks

1. Start strong

You have only 60 seconds or less to capture the attention of your audience. This means you have almost no choice but to start with something impactful and attention grabbing.

Fortunately, as all sorts of different TED speakers prove, there are tons of ways that you can command the attention of the room right from your first few words.

Whether you want to state a shocking statistic, use a powerful quote, display a grabby visual, ask a question, or utilize any other creative idea you can come up with (stand on your head if you have to!), make sure that the start of your talk proves that you’re worth listening to—and, beyond that, that you don’t intend to bore everybody to tears.

Another great tip you can use for a strong introduction? Explain right away why the audience should care about what you’re speaking about. Jane McGonigal does that by kicking off her talk with this provocative statement:

I'm a gamer, so I like to have goals. I like special missions and secret objectives. So here's my special mission for this talk: I'm going to try to increase the lifespan of every single person in this room by seven and a half minutes. Literally, you will live seven and a half minutes longer than you would have otherwise, just because you watched this talk.

2. Tell a story

Here’s another thing TED speakers are awesome at: Weaving narratives into their presentations. They tell personal and powerful stories in order to make their points and drive their messages home.

Why is storytelling such a great communication tactic? Well, let’s have a brief science lesson.

Let’s say that you’re sitting through a standard presentation filled with bullet points and statistics. As you listen, the language processing parts of your brain will be activated—Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, if you want to sound super intelligent at your next dinner party.

When somebody tells a story? Not only are those language processing parts working hard, but the other parts of your brain that you would use if you were actually experiencing the story’s events join the party too.

“If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it's about motion, our motor cortex gets active.”

Need an example of solid storytelling in a presentation? Check out Shawn Achor’s talk on achieving better work, where he jumps right in with a story from his younger years:

"When I was seven years old and my sister was just five years old, we were playing on top of a bunk bed."

3. Appeal to emotions

You likely already know that appealing to emotions is a powerful marketing tactic. It all goes back to Aristotle and his ethos, pathos, and logos models of persuasion.

But, as effective as emotions can be in marketing and advertising, the same can hold true in your presentations. As a matter of fact, in a survey that asked 169 people whether they thought it was better to start a presentation with emotion or reason, a whopping 79 percent voted in favor of emotion.

The variety of emotions you can solicit from people run the gamut. Maybe you want to make your audience feel inspired. Perhaps you want to make them laugh and experience joy. Or, maybe you want to draw out feelings of concern or sympathy.

Whatever suits your presentation best is up to you. But, don’t forget to appeal to the emotions of your audience.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this needs to be a long and drawn out process either. Stacey Kramer proves in her talk that you can make a big emotional impact, without taking up tons of time:

It was a rare gem—a brain tumor, hemangioblastoma—the gift that keeps on giving. And while I'm okay now, I wouldn't wish this gift for you. I'm not sure you'd want it. But I wouldn't change my experience. It profoundly altered my life in ways I didn't expect in all the ways I just shared with you.

4. Involve your audience

Want a surefire way to prevent your audience members from snoozing and daydreaming in their seats? Involve them in your presentation.

Not only does this keep your audience on their toes—weren’t you always afraid to zone out when there was the looming threat of the teacher calling your name?—but it also makes them that much more engaged in what you’re presenting, as they feel like they’re actively involved in what’s happening.

Maybe you want to ask questions throughout your presentation. Or, perhaps you want to hide something—like a graphic, quote, or even typo—in your slides that you tell your audience they should keep their eyes peeled for.

There are plenty of things you can do to make sure your audience is not only listening, but feels like an active participant in what they’re learning. Just check out this awesome example of how Bobby McFerrin uses his audience members to talk about the pentatonic scale.

5. Keep it short

Do you know why you’re willing to actually sit through a TED talk? Because you know you aren’t going to have to invest an entire afternoon in it. TED talks are notoriously short, and that’s no mistake.

Research has noted that most people can only pay attention to something for a certain length of time—typically around 10 minutes. So, TED decided that 18 minutes would be the absolute maximum length of any of their talks.

Nobody, no matter how famous, wealthy, or influential is allowed to speak more than 18 minutes on a TED stage.

While the time restrictions for your own presentation might not be so strict, it’s still important for you to remember that the briefer you can keep things, the better—unless you’re willing to accept those glazed over eyes staring back at you.

Want proof that you don’t need to be long-winded in order to make a point? Check out this TED talk that clocks in under three minutes:

6. Don’t be a robot

Another thing you’ll never see TED speakers do? Stand in one place, nervously grip the sides of the podium, and read directly from slides or notecards.

Body language is important. Some even go so far as to say that communication is made up of 93 percent nonverbal cues (including movements and tone of voice) and only seven percent verbal.

Fortunately, this is one thing that pretty much all TED speakers are great at. Even though they’re presenting on one of the best known stages in the world, they still treat it as a less formal discussion. They move around. They make gestures. They’re conversational and casual.

So, resist the temptation to over-rehearse and commit every last piece of your presentation—down to when you’ll breathe—to memory. Your audience will remain much more engaged if you’re a little more relaxed and flexible.

Don’t think you can pull this off? Because of her cerebral palsy, which she discusses in her talk, Maysoon Zayid is one of few TED speakers to stay seated in a chair. But, she still manages to be incredibly captivating:

Take advantage of these presentation tips

Nobody wants to invest hours and creativity into a presentation, only to look out at the audience and be met with crickets and blank stares. Fortunately, there are numerous things you can do to up the interest level of your presentation and keep your audience engaged.

Take a cue from these TED talks, and your audience members will be totally tuned into your presentation—rather than mentally making their shopping lists.

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Kat Boogaard

Kat Boogaard

Kat is a writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. When she escapes her computer, she enjoys reading, hiking, golfing, and dishing out tips for prospective freelancers on her website.